Posts by Bodhipaksa

Love, grammar, and magic

I’ve just finished reading Lawrence Weinstein’s book, “Grammar for a Full Life,” which I intend to write a review of later this week. (Spoiler: I’ll be recommending the book highly.) “Grammar for a Full Life” is a book on a topic that you might consider unusual—essentially it’s on the spirituality of grammar.

You might wonder what grammar and spirituality might have to do with each other. A lot, as it happens, but I’ll say more about that in the actual review. Right now I’d like to give a flavor of that connection by providing you with an example based on the book. It’s an example that starts off in the normal territory of grammar (which we often think of, I believe, as worthy but dull). But then it leads us into the territory of magic, and to a way of thinking about what we’re doing in meditation that has the potential to make our practice more vibrant and meaningful.

(Bear in mind that I’m condensing and simplifying, although hopefully not too grossly distorting, what Weinstein says.)

First the ordinary grammar: You’re probably familiar with the distinction between the use of the “active voice” and the “passive voice” in writing. The active voice is represented in a sentence such as, “I drove the car.” The “I” in the sentence is the doer—the one that actively drives. The car is the thing that “I” drove.

A passive-voice version of the same sentence would be “The car was driven.” Here there’s no active agent. Or at least the one who’s doing the driving is left unnamed and unexplained.

Because it neglects to mention who the “doer” is, passive voice is a construction favored by those who want to avoid taking responsibility. A politician says “Mistakes were made” because that construction leaves who actually made the mistakes (often themselves) unnamed. They give the impression that “responsibility has been taken” (another passive construction) but they themselves don’t take any responsibility. Similarly, when I point to a broken vase and ask my children what happened, they’ll usually say “It broke.” Perhaps my children are destined for careers in politics.

Weinstein points out that switching from using the passive to the active voice can be empowering, reminding us that we have agency. To take one of his examples, if someone asks you why you’ve been holding a phone to your ear without saying anything for a long time, you might say, “I’m being kept on hold.” This way of speaking (and thinking) reveals and reinforces a sense of helpless passivity. If you were to say something like “I’m waiting to talk to my bank” you’re framing yourself as an active agent—someone who is choosing to wait. It’s more likely, Weinstein points out, that using more active language will give you more of a sense of freedom—the freedom to hang up and call back later, for example. Using the active voice encourages us to take responsibility and to remind ourselves that we “remain the makers of our fate,” as Weinstein puts it.

Yet the passive voice, Weinstein also says, can express a form of “creative passivity” as well. The active voice can lead to us being effortful to such an extent that we get in our own way. Weinstein gives the example of his early attempts to sing being marred by having too much tension in his vocal apparatus. A skilled teacher later helped him to let go, so that his voice could flow, effortlessly, from him.

The active voice can also feed into our ego, while the passive voice can be expressive of modesty and of an awareness of interdependence. The woman who says, “I won the Oscar for best actress,” is suggesting that her talent and hard work alone were responsible for her success, Weinstein points out. On the other hand the woman who says “I was awarded the Oscar for best actress” is admitting that other factors are involved in this success. Luck can certainly be one of those factors (some actors are discovered while waiting tables—how fortunate for the actor that the director sat in that particular restaurant or cafe and not in the one down the road!). Perhaps people on the judging panel happen to know and like them. Perhaps other, better, performances weren’t brought to the judges’ attention. She has also been trained, coached, and advised by many people, who also contributed to her performance. The passive voice—”I was awarded the Oscar…”—can help us to recognize this complexity and also help move the “self” from the center of the story.

Additionally, the passive voice very accurately expresses how creation happens. Fiction writers talk about how their characters behave in ways that are unexpected to them and experience themselves as the passive recipients of their characters’ dramas. Painters feel inspiration flowing through them, and so on. The passive voice expresses the reality of what takes place when we create. (And not just when we create: my article on non-self, The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist, explains how the sense we have that we own our actions is in fact an illusion.)

But what of love and magic? The title of this little essay promises to say something about those topics as well.

First, grammar and magic are related. There’s an old Scots word for a magical spell: a glammer. Glammer made its way into English as “glamour,” which is the spell cast on us by beauty. Glammer was originally an alteration of “grammar,” which is from the Greek grammatikē tekhnē, meaning “the art of letters.” Magic used signs, symbols, and letters to conjure up desired results. Grammar is from the same Greek root, and it does the same thing: letters and symbols are used in certain ways to transmit a desired meaning (a pattern of thought, an understanding) from one mind to another, in a form of telepathy. Although Weinstein doesn’t say this in his book, grammar is magic.

Next, Weinstein also talks about a form of sentence that is neither passive nor active (or is both), and which brings us into the realm of the magical. And that grammatical form is one that’s commonly used in meditation.

In a chapter subtitled “Blessing,” Weinstein calls this the “active-passive hybrid.” The formula for this hybrid, which is rare in English, is the one that “begins with the auxiliary subjunctive verb may.” For example, “May your spirits lift.”

Who is the one who takes action here? The speaker is not saying “I raise your spirits” or even “I hope your spirits lift.” It is some unnamed force that will do the lifting. So this may seem like a passive construction. But at the same time the speaker is making an invocation. The form of words suggests that they have the power to invoke and direct the forces that can affect how another person feels. And so it also seems active. Perhaps it’s both, or neither.

As Weinstein says,

Insofar as I can tell, the blessing formula using may does several things at once.

  • it associates the speaker with a certain wish or vision, which she names;
  • it implicitly acknowledges that she, all by herself, doesn’t have sufficient power to bring the wished-for outcome to pass; and
  • it invites the people, forces, or divinities whose help is required for that outcome to come into play.

Now this “blessing formula,” although I’ve never called it that, and so I thank Weinstein for the term, is common in lovingkindness and compassion meditation. We might use any of the following phrases in this type of practice:

  • May I be well
  • May you be at peace
  • May we be free from suffering
  • May you be kind to yourselves and others

Those of us who do this kind of meditation are so used to that particular form of words that we don’t even think about it. But perhaps thinking about it would enrich our practice?

So I’d like you to imagine, as you’re reciting phrases of that sort—phrases of blessing—that you are becoming a channel for unknown forces that are indeed capable of bringing about wellness, peace, freedom from suffering, and an all-pervasive attitude of kindness. These unknown forces may reside in the entire universe, or in the earth beneath you, the heavens above you, or deep inside you. But consider that in saying “May you be at peace” you are inviting them to flow through you.

In passive voice terms, love is flowing through you. But there is also an active component. You are willing or inviting the forces of love to arise. You are willingly becoming a conduit. But you are not a passive conduit. You are bestowing these blessings upon the world, or upon particular individuals.

I say “imagine this,” but really I mean, “feel this.” Really I mean, “experience this.” Really I mean, “Let this happen.”

How enriching this is, not to limply and half-heartedly be reciting phrases, but to open ourselves up to love, to be a conduit for it, allowing it to affect our entire world. You have receptivity but also agency. You have power but also the humility to know that the power isn’t really yours.

The practices of lovingkindness and compassion are included in a set called the “brahma-viharas,” or the “divine abidings.” The name suggests our dwelling in a beautiful but potent, almost god-like, state of love. But it could also suggest a beautiful but potent state of love dwelling in (or flowing through) us.

So I recommend that you let yourself (another passive-active construction we often use in meditation instruction) adopt this perspective: that in lovingkindness and compassion practice you are inviting blessings to well up inside of you, and that those blessings are then, through you, bestowing themselves upon the world.

Once you’re aware of grammar as magic, of grammar as glammer, your meditation can become magic rather than a mere formal exercise in training the mind.

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. It is supported by, at present, over 600 people who donate an amount every month and who receive numerous benefits in return. Click here to learn more about the meditation initiative.

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Try gentler, not harder

There’s an old story that goes something like this: A young man who wants to learn to be an expert swordsman travels for many days to seek out a famous teacher who lives in a remote place in the mountains. After much difficulty he tracks down the sword master and begs to be accepted as a student. To his joy, the master agrees to take him on.

“How long will it take for me to become as good a swordsman as you?” the student asks.

“Perhaps fifteen years,” replies the master.

The student is dismayed at this prospect. “How long if I try really hard?” he asks.

The master scratches his chin as he ponders, and then finally says, “I suppose, if you try really hard, it might take you … twenty years.”

The point of the story is that for some things, the harder you try, the more you get in your own way. Meditation is very much like that.

“Trying hard” inevitably involves an element of grasping. But meditation is about letting go of grasping. It’s about being, accepting, and opening up. Yes, within that context there can be a sense that we’re working in our meditation practice. But it’s important to establish a sense of openness, receptivity, and acceptance before we begin working, so that that work is not imbued with grasping but is instead more of matter of paying attention gently and kindly.

For me this all starts with the eyes.

The striving, grasping mind leads to a tight, narrow gaze. I imagine this is because striving requires us to focus narrowly on a single thing that we either want to have or want to avoid. When the gaze is narrowly focused we become physically tense, and the mind goes into overdrive. It’s not a pleasant way to exist.

Letting the eyes soften — letting the focus within the eyes be gentler and letting the muscles around the eyes relax — triggers a state of relaxation. This relaxed gaze is familiar to us from when we stare into space. That’s something we do when we feel safe and relaxed, and there’s no need to be hyperaware of danger.

As soon as the eyes soften in this way the mind calms, our thoughts slow down, and the body begins to relax. The breathing slows and deepens.

This is what I always do when I start meditating.

One thing that happens when the eyes soften is that our gaze is no longer narrowly focused, and we’re able to take in the whole of our visual field. This happens quite naturally and effortlessly.

And this immediately translates to our inner field of attention being open and receptive, and able to take in the whole of the body (and other inner sensations) at once. This too happens naturally and effortlessly.

Now we can sense the movements of the breathing in the whole body, offering us a rich sensory experience that helps us remain in mindfulness.

So while we might start off thinking that to calm the mind we need to do a lot of work, we actually find that all we have to do is let the eyes soften. And then it’s a question of letting our inner field of awareness connect with the body. And then with gentleness, kindness, and curiosity, we remain mindful of the whole body breathing. Often at this point our thoughts are few and far between. Mostly they arise and pass away without distracting us. And when we do get sucked into thinking, it’s easier to let go of them; we just let the eyes soften again.

If we tried through “trying harder” to achieve this depth of mindfulness it might take many hours, and probably even then only on a retreat. Making a lot of effort in meditation creates mental turbulence, distraction, and resistance. Think about what it’s like to try to grab a slippery bar of soap you’ve dropped in the bath. If you lunge after it you push it away. It’s very similar in meditation. If we want to achieve something, we need to let it happen, not make it happen.

By doing the opposite of trying hard, we can get much further.

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Eleanor Roosevelt: “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Eleanor Roosevelt is often credited with saying “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” As a bit of a quotation snob, I feel compelled to point out that there’s no evidence she actually used those words. She did however express the core idea that feeling snubbed is something we do to ourselves.

Whether she said this or not, it’s certainly true that a lot of the time we make ourselves unhappy by making ourselves feel inferior to others. And this usually involves taking things personally.

Taking things personally means that we see things as being about us when they’re really about the other person.

Reacting to Being Snubbed

One time when I worked in Community Education in Scotland I was heading to a training course with Kate, a colleague of mine. Neither of us drove, so we took the train, which involved a bit of walking at the other end. As it happened, we weren’t entirely sure where we were heading, and so Kate suggested that I ask a pedestrian who was walking on the other side of the road. I dashed across and started following him.

As I got closer I said “Excuse me.” The pedestrian ignored me and kept on walking. I said “Excuse me!” again, but this time louder. Again he ignored me. By this time I was starting to get mad. How rude, I thought,  to ignore someone in this way! How dare he ignore me? Who does this guy think he is!

I actually had to catch up with the man before I could get him to pay attention to me. At which point I discovered he was completely deaf! It turned out that he was very friendly, and he gave us directions the building where the training course was being held. I felt very embarrassed at having taken another person’s disability personally.

I assumed that this man’s lack of response was an act of rudeness he was directing specifically at me. But it wasn’t about me at all. His not acknowledging my hails was simply because he couldn’t hear me.

Not Reacting to Being Snubbed

In a contrasting example, the other day as I left the building where I live, a woman was heading in the opposite direction. I said “Good morning” to her as I passed. All I got in response was a startled gaze.

Now I could have taken this personally. And in fact I could sense that part of me wanted to. But I very quickly realized that she probably didn’t reply because I hadn’t greeted her until I was right in front of her. Quite possibly she was distracted and didn’t hear me. Or maybe she was startled and didn’t have time to reply before I’d gone by. Perhaps she was trying to work out if she was supposed to know me.

This brings us to the practice of “don’t-know mind.” Don’t know mind is when we accept that we don’t know something, and we don’t rush to create a story that will fill the void.

I simply don’t know what was going on with the woman who didn’t say hello to me. But there’s no reason for me to make up a story that her behavior was about me personally. Her behavior was to do with what was going on in her life. It wasn’t about me at all.

It’s About Them, Not You

Even if someone directs anger or criticism against you, you don’t have to take it personally. The other person may be having a bad day or a bad week.  Perhaps they are having a bad life!  It may be that you’re just the person who happened to be near them when they had an outburst.

So just reminding yourself, “It’s about them, not about me,” can help you to take things less personally. You can say those words to yourself when you realize you’re freaking out and becoming reactive. The words “It’s not personal” can also help.

Victims of Our Own Thoughts

Often, when someone treats us in a way we don’t like, we run through a very rapid set of thoughts, something like this:

  • That person treated me rudely.
  • Therefore they don’t respect me.
  • Therefore they don’t think I’m worthy of respect.
  • Therefore they think I’m worthless.
  • Therefore I don’t matter to others.

And so you feel unhappy, because believing you don’t matter is unpleasant.

Displacing Reactive Thoughts With Compassion

One thing to consider when someone behaves like this is that they are suffering. This is a constant factor in all bad behavior. If the other person is suffering, and doesn’t have the self-compassion or mindfulness to deal with that, then they’ll tend to act out in ways that hurt others.

By considering that the other person is suffering we’re directing our attention away from our own self-preoccupation. There’s less mental processing power available for us to run through our usual self-punishing thinking — the chain of rapid-fire thoughts like those I outlines above, that end with us feeling miserable.

I mentioned that when someone didn’t reply to my “Good morning,” I could sense my reactive thought-patterns waiting to be activated. But in this case they stayed dormant, and so I didn’t cause myself unnecessary suffering. The reason was that I had diverted my attention to what was going on with her; I considered the possibility that she was suffering, because I had startled or confused her. Because that’s the direction my thoughts went in, they weren’t able to go in the direction of taking things personally.

Mindfulness, empathy and compassion, then, help us to stop taking things personally so that we can stop freaking out and instead be calmer and happier.

This post is adapted from materials in Wildmind’s online course, “How to Stop Freaking Out.” You can learn more about how to access our courses here.

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The benefits of making things hard for ourselves

I find that a lot of the time, when people are cultivating kindness or compassion for a person they find difficult, they do it in a rather vague way. Usually in their meditation practice they just visualize an image of the “enemy” and repeat the appropriate phrases — “May you be well,” “May you be free from suffering,” and so on. That’s what I was taught to do, and it’s what most other people were taught as well.

Creating a challenge

So what’s the problem with this? It’s that when we have difficulties with people, what we really have difficulties with are their behaviors — what they say and do. Those are the things that provoke our own reactivity. When the person in our mind’s eye is just sitting there passively, we’re not triggering the discomfort that leads to us getting annoyed by them. We’re simply not making things hard enough for ourselves. We have to make ourselves uncomfortable in order to learn how to handle discomfort without reacting. We have to put ourselves in the position where reactivity is a real possibility before we can start to recognize the signs that we’re starting to get angry, and then choose not to feed our anger.

So I tend to teach lovingkindness and compassion meditation as opportunities to rehearse facing real difficulties. When you call a so-called “difficult person” to mind in one of these meditations, it helps if we focus very specifically on the things they say and do that tend to trigger us. If we remember or imagine those things very vividly, we’re more likely to create uncomfortable feelings, and it’s those feelings that in turn trigger our reactivity. And now, in the mindful space that meditation offers us, we have the opportunity to sit with those uncomfortable feelings and be present with them. And we have the opportunity to see our anger arising, so that we can choose not to encourage it, but instead to let go of it. We have an opportunity to remember the humanity of the person facing us, and to cultivate an attitude of kindness toward them.

Superheroes of nonviolence

I was thinking about this the other day in the context of the civil rights marches of the 1960s.
When I first heard how Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights marchers endured, without retaliation, insults, beatings, being hosed with water, and having dogs set upon them, I was astonished and humbled. How was it they could do these things, when I take offense at merely being belittled online?

Later I learned that these brave activists trained to be non-reactive in the face of violence. They rehearsed. They met in groups where they would role-play facing insults and physical assaults, in order to learn how to respond non-violently to violence. They trained in reframing encounters with the police, so that they didn’t see arrest and imprisonment as violations of their freedom but as a badge of honor, to be worn with pride.

They trained in learning that the point of nonviolent resistance was not to insult or humiliate their opponents, but to win their trust, friendship, and understanding; it was to convert the enemy to nonviolence. They trained in understanding that the enemy was the ideology of evil and oppression, and not the persons who were committing injustice.

Training to be more loving

These brave individuals didn’t make some sudden leap to practicing love in the face of hatred; they learned, step by step, to do this. It became clear to me that we can learn to do seemingly superhuman acts of nonviolence through training.

If they could practice love while being beaten with clubs and insulted in vile ways, surely we can learn to do the same with the much more minor irritations in our own lives? And so I suggest that you make your meditation practice into a form of rehearsal. Do you get irritated with the way a household member loads the dishwasher badly, or doesn’t clear up after themselves? Or when someone ignores you, or puts you down? Visualize those things very clearly in your mind’s eye; let the feeling of irritation arise, and allow it to be present, without reacting. If angry thoughts and impulses arise, let go of them. Connect with kindness as you visualize the things that annoy you. Rehearse responding lightly, humorously, kindly, with full sensitivity to the other person as a feeling, vulnerable human being.

To create compassion, evoke powerful suffering

The same applies to compassion meditation, where we train ourselves to be loving and supportive in the face of another’s suffering. It’s fine to call someone to mind and remember that they suffer, but that’s really not very challenging. The Buddhist monk, Mathieu Ricard, explained once how he imagined suffering while meditation. One example he gave was of visualizing a friend, “terribly injured in a car accident, lying in his blood by the side of a road at night, far from help.” This is a potent image, evoking powerful feelings.

In fact, Ricard suggests that we imagine “different forms of distress as realistically as possible, until they become unbearable.”

It’s not about making ourselves suffer

The point is not to make ourselves suffer. It’s to give ourselves an opportunity to develop a compassionate response that envelops, sustains, and protects the person who is suffering. In fact, compassion is heart-warming, nourishing, and loving, and this to a large extent insulates us against sinking into suffering ourselves.

At the same time, it’s best if we stretch our capacity to bear suffering gradually. If we’re not able to respond to suffering with kindness and compassion we’re likely to become overwhelmed. And that’s not going to help us or others.

In short, our meditation practices of kindness and compassion are only going to lead to very slow change if we don’t challenge ourselves. But if instead we vividly imagine situations that provoke us emotionally, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to really grow the strength of our kindness and compassion. And as the civil rights marchers showed, we can even develop what appear to be superhuman levels of love and compassion.

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Making the most of this precious human birth

Someone asked me the other day whether there was a contradiction between the Buddha saying that “life is suffering” and the teaching that this human life is a precious thing. It was a new take on an old misunderstanding, but it led to an interesting discussion.

First of all I had to point out that “life is suffering” is not something the Buddha ever taught. All he did was remind us that there are various kinds of suffering in life.

So here’s the first noble truth — the truth of suffering — as it’s recorded in the early scriptures, supposedly in the Buddha’s own words:

Birth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.

So this doesn’t say that life is suffering. It doesn’t say anything about “life” as such at all. What it does is point out that there are various instances of suffering in our lives. Life contains suffering.

The Buddha constantly pointed out that there are also instances of peace, joy, and happiness in life as well. And he also pointed out that we can reduce the amount of suffering in our lives and, potentially, even eliminate it altogether. That’s what the third noble truth is about:

Now this is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not adhering to it.

So it’s because we have this choice — remain unaware and continue to suffer, or cultivate awareness and free yourself from suffering — that human life is precious. That choice is not available to all living things. I’ll say more about that shortly.

But first my questioner had a follow-up: is human life “precious” because it is “better to exist than the alternative (to have never been born, or to no longer exist).”

This reminded me of the more cosmological side of Buddhism that I tend not to pay much attention to. It’s not very scientific, it makes claims that can’t be tested here and now, and it’s not directly related to the task of ending suffering. But I was glad that my questioner pointed me in that direction.

In traditional Buddhist teachings the alternative to human existence is not non-existence but existence in other, less advantageous, forms. The belief was that there are so many non-human beings that the chances of being reborn as a human were — in a wonderful image — as unlikely as a one-eyed turtle in the ocean coming up once every hundred years and happening to put his head through a yoke floating on the surface.

And human existence was seen as the most likely one in which freedom from suffering through spiritual awakening (or “bodhi”) could be found. The early scriptures talk about five realms into which we can be reborn: animals, hell, and ghostly forms (collectively the three lower realms), our own human realm, and the realm of the gods. Sometimes the realm of the gods was seen as twofold: gods that were more peaceful and “chill” and those, called “asuras,” that were more war-like and competitive. The realm of the asuras was added to the list of lower rebirths, bringing them up to four in number.

The human realm offers advantages in terms of spiritual development.

  • Animals don’t have enough self-awareness.
  • Beings in hell are too caught up in their own suffering.
  • Ghosts are too caught up in painful longings.
  • Asuras are too obsessed by power.
  • And gods have so much pleasure that they have no sense of urgency and rarely practice (although some are depicted as doing so in the scriptures).

Incidentally, Gods in Buddhist cosmology are mortal. They do die; they just live for a long time. But because they aren’t bothered by impermanence they aren’t motivated to develop insight. And because they’re not used to dealing with painful feelings they tend, when they die, to plunge straight into the lower realms. (Think of a junkie experiencing a high for millennia, and then crashing badly.)

Human existence allows for self-awareness. It contains (on average) enough suffering that we’re motivated to work to improve our condition, but not so much pleasure that we become complacent. Therefore human life provides good conditions for spiritual growth. But it’s also very rare, and therefore it’s a precious opportunity.

Most contemporary practitioners see all these “realms” as symbolic of psychological realities, because it’s hard for many of us to take them literally. An animal existence becomes one in which we’re fixated on gratifying our appetites for food, sex, and sensory stimulation. We don’t think much, we don’t reflect on life, and maybe our constant self-gratification is a way of avoiding doing so. Hell is the reality of depression, anxiety, and other debilitating mental conditions. Ghosts are people caught up in addictions or helplessly longing for things they can’t have. The gods are hedonists, with pleasures that are more refined than the animal state. Asuras are obsessed by competing for power, like certain business people. We’re only truly in a human state when we’re self-aware, living a relatively ethical and emotionally healthy life, and open to learning more about how to live well. We might, as individuals, actually cycle through all of these realms during our lifetime, and might possibly visit several of them in the course of one day!

So the Buddha taught all this not as something we should believe literally, but as an encouragement to practice. The law of supply and demand says that the price of something goes up when it’s scarce, and when it’s abundant its value goes down. And so if we perceive human life as being unlimited, then it has less value. If we perceive human life as scarce, then we value it more.

Another way to achieve this sense of urgency is to reflect on the inevitability of death and the brevity of human life. Doing this can help jolt us into wondering what we’re doing with the precious time that’s available to us. We can also reflect on the uncertainty of our lives. Right now my dad is 87 years old and in good health. My maternal grandfather lived to be 95. And I find myself assuming that I’m going to live for a similar amount of time. On the other hand I’m now 17 years older than my paternal grandfather was when he died and nine years older than one of my great grandfathers was when he passed away, so I could also see myself as living on borrowed time.

And sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it’s possible for us to slip into different realms. We sometimes sink into a numbing and unthinking animal state. This might be comfortable in a way, but it’s not very satisfying. So we have to remind ourselves that there’s more to life, and that we’ll be happier if we’re curiously exploring our potential.

We can get sucked down into the hell of depression, or into the ghost-like realm of unsatisfiable longings. And in the throes of those kinds of suffering we have to remind ourselves that practice helps. It’s not an instant fix, but it does help us to find more balance in our lives.

We can find ourselves obsessed with competition and status, and this is a major distraction, because it’s satisfying in its own way. We really think we’re achieving something. But it’s fraught, because there’s always an underlying fear of loss, and we’re always aware on some level that what we’re doing is meaningful. We have to bring those contradictions into awareness.

The most unhelpful state, paradoxically, can be the realm of the gods, or devas, because the besetting sin of that condition is complacency. When we’re happy, we often think we’ve “made it.” We think we don’t need to practice, because we have the happiness that we think practice is all about. But the gods are not immortal. They all die, and when they do it often isn’t pretty. So it’s especially important that when we’re happily cruising though life we remind ourselves of the reality of old age, sickness, and death. As the Buddha said:

Whatever beings there are, or will be,
They will all go hence, leaving the body behind.
A skillful person, understanding the loss of all,
Should live the spiritual life ardently.

So really we have two tasks: to recognize that we have the capacity for self-awareness, or mindfulness, and to make use of that opportunity in order to find ways to live a meaningful life. If these become strong habits then we’ll find that when we end up in states of suffering (or of extreme joy) we’ll remain mindful of our practice. We’ll remember to be kind to ourselves and each other. We’ll remember that things change. We’ll remember that this life offers us a precious opportunity.

Life is short. Let’s make the most of this opportunity that we’ve been given.

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Try this simple technique to dispel anxiety

Being mindful of the body is powerful tool for grounding us and calming us down. Paying attention to the physical sensations and movements of the body diverts our attention away from the ruminative thoughts that cause stress. And this in turn allows our emotions to settle so that we become calmer and more at ease. An added bonus is that practicing mindfulness in this way brings about long-term changes in the brain. These changes make us less emotionally reactive so that we have less of a tendency to freak out.

But our body itself has a more direct and immediate effect on our emotions. The very way that we hold the body — the posture we adopt — changes how we feel. The effects of this are measurable. They can be seen in terms of the underlying hormones that give rise to our feelings. They can also be seen in terms of the way we act.

In a study published in 2014 by the University of Auckland, New Zealand, individuals with mild to moderate depression were assigned either to a group where they were asked to sit up straight, or where they just sat normally. The “straight sitters” were asked to straighten their backs and level their shoulders. They were also asked to stretch the tops of their heads toward the ceiling while drawing their shoulder blades down and together.

Researchers asked both groups to do a stressful task: to give a speech for five minutes, while being judged. Those who sat up straight while doing this task used more words in total than the control group, suggesting that they were more energized and had a better mood. They also used the word “I” much less than the other group, suggesting that they had become less self-focused and self-conscious.

Other research shows that when we sit up straight, we are more likely to remember positive memories or to have positive thoughts. A slumped posture, on the other hand, leads to depressive thoughts and memories arising.

In a 2010 study at Columbia and Harvard universities, researchers asked study participants either to adopt a dominant, high power stance (sitting or standing straight, expanding the body, and spreading the limbs) or a submissive posture (involving the opposite). The power posers experienced elevations in testosterone (which contributes to feelings of confidence), and decreases in cortisol (which is a stress hormone). Low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern.

When the two groups were subsequently asked to play a low-risk gambling game, the high power group were more confident, as shown by their being more likely to take a chance on winning.

Finally, reinforcing how crucial posture is in our lives, Adam D. Galinsky and Li Huang of Northwestern University ran a series of studies on posture. These showed that posture was in fact a major predictor of whether people feel powerful or take action. It was more powerful than either putting people in positions of power or asking them to recall feeling powerful.

This is all excellent news, because our posture is something that’s easy to change. You can do it right now. In fact, I’d suggest that for the next three minutes you do a standing meditation in which you adopt a Superman or Wonder Woman pose, as illustrated below. (Knee-high boots are optional!)

You can also try sitting in a power pose. Sit erect, with your head held high, and with your limbs taking up space around you. Watch out for a tendency to slouch, since this contributes to feelings of fatigue, despondency, and powerlessness. These feelings can cause our thoughts and feelings to spiral out of control.

Keep coming back to your posture during the day. Do this while you’re sitting or standing at work or at home, when you’re driving, and when you’re walking. Think of what it’s like to sit, stand, or walk with confidence. And notice the effect that this has on how you feel. And several times a day, for at least three minutes, adopt a “power pose.”

For a few people, the experience of adopting a more confident posture can at first evoke a feeling of anxiety. It’s as if they’re thinking, “Who am I to show confidence?” If this happens to you, recognize that this is a temporary state of affairs. Remember that the physiological changes you’re creating will soon bring a sense of strength and confidence.

This article is adapted from material for Wildmind’s online course, “Stop Freaking Out.” This, like our other courses, is available free of charge to supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative. You can click here to learn more about this initiative.

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“Trust in the Dharma”

At one of the online meditation sessions the other day we were talking about the powerful attraction of social media. Many people find the lure of social media to be so strong that it’s virtually an addiction. And in fact the designers of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like have invested massive amounts of money into finding ways to keep us hooked.

Research shows that social media make us unhappy and that we’re more content without them. Yet we still keep picking up our phones. Social media sucks us in because of our insatiable attraction for novelty. They suck us in because people “liking” or commenting on what we’ve shared gives us a sense of validation . And it’s hard to leave, because there’s always one more thing we can look at and interact with. The hope that this one more thing might be more interesting than what we’ve just seen is what keeps us on the hook.

And this constant manipulation of our attention has a bad effect on us. We find ourselves no longer able to abide moments when there’s nothing to do, no information to scroll through. I see people in the supermarket check-out lines and virtually every single one of them is staring at a screen. I see people waiting at a drive-through coffee shop, and virtually every one of them is glued to their phone. Even while we’re brushing our teeth or using the toilet, we feel bored and find ourselves picking up our phones. Apparently daydreaming is a lost art.

We get so accustomed to consuming information in small bursts that many people report they can no longer focus well enough to read a book. This is especially hard when we’re reading on an electronic device, where the sirens digitally calling to us are just a click or swipe of the screen away. Concentration is a lost art too.

How can we learn to say no?

I’ve pretty much quit social media now (I have a Twitter account I don’t use and I have a business Facebook account but don’t use a personal account). But back in the days when I struggled with social media addiction I found a very simple and powerful tool that helped me to put my phone down and stop Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey from manipulating my attention.

It’s just three words: “Trust the Dharma.”

Those words have resonance and meaning for me that perhaps they don’t have for you, so let me unpack this.

“Trust the Dharma”

The “Dharma” is a word that can mean “teachings” — in this case the Buddha’s teachings. It can mean “truth.” It can mean “principle.” The Buddha recognized that his own formulations were just an illustration of general principles that lead us from suffering to finding peace and fulfillment. Those general principles are Dharma. When his aunt, who was a nun, wanted a brief teaching before going off on a solitary retreat, he said to her:

When you see that certain things
lead to contentment, not to craving;
to being free, not to being fettered;
to letting go of things, not accumulating them;
to having fewer desires, not more;
to contentment, not discontent;
to seclusion, not socializing;
to energy, not laziness;
to being easy to be with, not to being hard to be with,
You can with certainty hold, ‘These things are
the Dharma, the training, and the Teacher’s instructions.’

Reminding ourselves of spiritual principles

A simple moment of mindfulness helps us move toward calmness. Paying attention to just one breath helps to calm the mind a little. A single kind thought helps us to be more at peace with ourselves and others. Observing a feeling without judgement creates a sacred pause in which wisdom can arise. These are principles that we can trust.

And so in saying to myself, “Trust the Dharma” I’m reminding myself of those principles.

I’m saying to myself:

  • “Trust yourself. You’re OK without looking at your phone.”
  • “Trust that you’re happier without Facebook right now.”
  • “Trust that this moment, if observed and accepted, holds everything you need in order to be fulfilled and at peace.”

All this, and much more, is contained in those three simple words, “Trust the Dharma.”

Evolution versus the Dharma

We need to remind ourselves of these spiritual principles because we so easily forget them. Our evolutionary history has equipped us with principles that are totally in contradiction to Dharma. Primitive parts of the brain operate on the principle that we need to constantly worry in order to be safe, that we should look after ourselves at the expense of others, and that attack is the best form of defense. Less primitive, but still ancient, parts of the brain tell us that belonging to and being accepted by a tribe is the key to happiness, even if this means joining in with their hatred for other tribes and subjugating our own individuality in order to fit in. They tell us that more is better, and that we should therefore scroll, scroll, scroll our way down those screens, until we find satisfaction.

The pressing urgency of all those genetically scripted imperatives can swamp our awareness of those Dharmic principles. So we need to keep reminding ourselves that they exist. And because Dharmic principles and the programming we’ve inherited often conflict, we have to remind ourselves to trust them. We need to keep reminding ourselves to “trust the Dharma.” Trusting the Dharma is something we have to learn, slowly, over years and decades.

Boredom is the trigger

This phrase, “Trust the Dharma” is triggered by that familiar sense that I’m restless, and afraid of being bored, and therefore want to pick up my phone. And every single time that happens I feel a sense of confidence and calm descend upon me. I trust that mindfully paying attention to my present-moment experience is going to be enough. I trust that standing in line at the supermarket checkout, without touching my phone, is going to be pleasurable. I trust that simply breathing, simply noticing what thoughts and feelings are arising, simply turning my mind to kindness will lead me to calm, joy, and kindness.

It works for me, every single time.

I wonder how it will work for you?

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The art of mindfully talking to yourself

A lot of people find it easier to practice with guided meditations than when they “fly solo.” And that’s not surprising. When we have a guide then we have a voice coming in from the outside, bringing with it skills that aren’t yet our own.

The guide’s voice also performs the useful function of interrupting our distracted trains of thought. Without those interruptions reminding us of what we’re actually meant to be doing in the meditation practice we’d remain in distracted states for much longer. A lot of our distractions involve us talking to ourselves.

Generally, then there’s a big difference between the effects of our distracting inner voices and the helpful outer voice of the teacher.

But what if we could get our inner voices to be more helpful? What if they could help us to stay on track, and to be less distracted?

Meditate Like a Train Conductor

In explaining how we can do this I’d like to share with you the Japanese art of shisa kanko, which literally means “pointing and calling.”

Shisa kanko isn’t a meditation technique. It evolved in noisy and distracting working environments where it was important not to make errors. But it does have the aim of helping people to be less distracted and more mindful — especially when they’re doing repetitive tasks that they’re very familiar with. Shisa Kanko the mindful art of talking to yourself.

Japanese railway workers have been using this tool for more than a hundred years. A train conductor pulling into a station will talk themselves through the procedures involved, pointing at things they need to check and naming them out loud. It’s a mental checklist that they’re reciting to themselves as a mindfulness aid.

It’s a remarkably effective method of performing a task mindfully. A 1994 study showed that “pointing and calling” reduced mistakes by almost 85 percent when doing a simple task. In fact, using this method, there were only 0.38 errors for every 100 times a task was done.

Reducing the “Error Rate” in Our Meditation

Now consider that meditation is a repetitive task. And it’s an internal one, without the kind of external and objective demands that a task like bringing a train into a station imposes. If a conductor were to forget to unlock the doors, the passengers would soon remind them. If you start thinking about work during your meditation, your mind can wander a long way before you remind yourself of your intended task.

We don’t talk in terms of “errors” in meditation, but if we did we’d say there was a very high error rate — maybe in the range of 40 to 80 percent for the average person who’s been meditating for a few years. If only we could get down to 0.38 distractions in meditation for every hundred breaths!

As you know, I’ve led a lot of guided meditations. And one of the things I’ve noticed many times over the years is that my meditation practice tends to be more effective while I’m leading a sit. And that’s maybe not surprising, since I’m doing, in effect, shisa kanko (minus the pointing). While I’m leading others in meditation I’m also leading myself.

How to be Your Own Meditation Guide

So sometimes when I’m meditating on my own I offer myself a few words of self-guidance. Often this is just a few words. As I’m settling in to meditate I might say to myself, “Poise … dignity … softening.” Each of those words acts as a trigger for a cascade of inner changes, both physical and emotional. The words poise and dignity trigger my body straightening, my head coming to an effortless balance on top of the spine, my chest opening as I breathe into the sternum. “Softening” triggers the release of unnecessary tension.

I have a little mantra that I drop into meditation over and over: “Soft eyes … open field of inner attention.” Saying “soft eyes” triggers a deeper relaxation response. It also calms my mind, reducing the amount of thinking that’s going on. “Open field of inner attention” leads me into an awareness of the whole body. As well as saying that phrase at the start of meditaion I’ll drop it into my mind any time I realize that my attention has begun to wander.

So this is an example of inner speech that takes me deeper into my present-moment experience rather than distracting me from it. It’s me guiding myself into (and through) a meditation session. And it has a powerful effect, especially with repetition, because of the way that the words trigger particular responses.

I’ve suggested to other people that they try doing this, and they’ve found it helpful too.

Using This Outside of Meditation

This technique is something I’ve used outside of meditation as well. Like many people right now, I’ve sometimes found myself waking up in the middle of the night with my mind racing. So I’ll keep saying to myself, “Soft eyes, senses wide open.”

This is similar to one of the phrases I use at the beginning of meditation (“Soft eyes … open field of inner attention”), but here I’m triggering openness and acceptance in all my senses, outer as well as inner, so that I’m aware of the space and sounds around me, for example. Usually this leads to me falling asleep quite quickly.

So this is something I recommend to you. Find phrases that can help you as you go into and during meditation. Maybe the phrases I’ve suggested will be helpful. Maybe you can come up with your own. Give it a go and let me know how you get on!

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Abiding in Peace, Here and Now

  • When? Saturday and Sunday June 13 and 14, 9am-12pm (Pacific time) both days.
  • Where? On Zoom (link will be sent after registration).
  • How much? By donation.

In follow-up to his transformative retreat in April, Bodhipaksa will introduce further radical yet simple approaches to meditation that allow experiences of peace, joy, and calmness to unfold effortlessly within us.

These tools are accessible regardless of whether or not you attended his first retreat.

As well as new meditation skills, you’ll come away with an understanding of the significance of dhyana (meditative absorption) in the Buddha’s path to Awakening, and especially how it leads to insight. And crucially, you’ll come away with a deeper appreciation of how peace and joy can be found in every moment.

Register Online

If you would like to attend this online class, please register through the San Francisco website at the link below by Thursday June 11. You’ll receive a Zoom link by the end of Friday June 12.

REGISTER HERE

About the Teacher

Bodhipaksha has taught meditation around the world and online for many years. He is also the author of several books, most recently This Difficult Thing of Being Human: The Art of Self-Compassion, and the founder of Wildmind Meditation<.

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The power of intention

I’ve been very aware recently of what a difference setting an intention can make to the quality of my meditation practice. This was even before I recorded the most recent series of Sitting With Bodhi, which is on the theme of intention. In fact it was because I was rediscovering the power of intention that I decided to create that course.

The act of setting an intention brings a heightened sense of clarity to our practice. Setting an intention for a period of practice helps us to catch our distractions earlier and even to avoid distraction altogether at times.

An intention is something we have to keep coming back to over and over again during a period of practice. It’s not just a question of setting one and then you’re done! That’s part of the strength of intentions, though. They give us something specific to focus on. They give us an opportunity to check in repeatedly to see if we’re still on track. Having an intention is like having a compass to help you navigate. The point is to periodically check your bearings to make sure you’re going in the right direction.

Conscious and Unconscious Intentions

What happens is that our conscious intention meets unconscious intentions.

The mind, after all, is rarely purposeless. We bring our emotional preoccupations to the cushion in the forms of anxieties, things we’re irritated about, things we’re longing for, and so on. So when the mind is turning over a potentially worrisome situation it’s in the grip of an intention. But it’s not one we’ve consciously chosen. It’s the direction that our mind wants to head in by default. Our distractions are unconscious intentions.

Some of our unconscious intentions involve the body as well as the mind. You’ve probably had the experience of suddenly finding that you’re scratching an itch. The intention to scratch has arisen and caused your body to move before you’re even aware or it. You’ll probably have had the experience of your posture having slumped. You didn’t consciously decide to slump. You just notice at some point that it’s already happened.

How Do We Set Intentions?

In theory we always have some kind of intention in meditation. We have the intention to always return to the breathing or to cultivate kindness, for example. But often that’s just not enough, and we need an intention that’s a bit more precise and specifically tailored for us.

For a relevant and effective intention to arise we usually need to bring together two things: knowing where we are and knowing where we’d like to go.

Knowing where we are means paying attention as we’re setting up for meditation, settling into our posture, and so on. We develop an awareness of what’s arising for us. Are we tired, irritable, fidgety, lacking confidence, trying to hard? Are we happy, relaxed, inspired, or focused? We need to know what’s going on. If we’re not sure how we are then that in itself is an important thing for us to know.

Knowing where we’d like to go doesn’t mean grasping after some experience, or having an expectation that certain things are going to happen in our meditation practice (“In this meditation I’ll experience joy, or I’ll die trying!”) It’s not about having an expectation, but is about having an aspiration. It’s not about getting to a certain place, but is about knowing what direction we’d like to head in.

Usually those two things are organically related to each other. And your intention arises from an intuitive sense of how to move forward, often in a very simple way.

An Intuitive Leap

If you’re fidgety, for example, then you might want to head in the direction of stillness. So it might become clear that your intention is to sit still.

If you’re feeling critical or irritable, then you might want to head in the direction of appreciation. And so you realize that an appropriate intention is to meet every experience, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, with appreciation.

If you’re feeling kind, then you might want to deepen your attitude of kindness. And so a specific intention might be to meet every distraction that arises with kindness.

Be Specific

You might notice that the form of words I’ve chosen allows you to know whether or not you’re following through with the intention. If in a given moment you’re fidgeting, then you’ve forgotten your intention to sit still. But if you’re sitting still then you’re following through with it. If you get annoyed or disappointed about getting distracted, then you’re not meeting your distractions with kindness. But if you have an attitude of acceptance, patience, and benevolence when you notice you’ve been distracted, then you know you’re following through with your intention. A vague intention such as “be kinder” or “be more mindful” isn’t very helpful. In any given moment that you check in with yourself, are you “being kinder” or “being more mindful”? It’ll be hard to tell! So choose a specific intention.

It’s All About Karma

The Buddha said that karma is intention. Why? Well, first of all, karma isn’t some kind of mysterious cosmic force, dealing our punishments or rewards depending if you’re on the naughty or nice lists. Karma literally means “action.” The original sense was “building,” “constructing,” or “fabricating.” Karma is the action that shapes our life: that shapes who we are. And actions start, internally, as intentions.

So, remember when I said that our conscious intention meets unconscious intentions? Our lives are always shaping themselves because we’re constantly exercising behavioral habits. And I’m taking the word behavior here to refer not just to physical actions we make in the world, but to the way we speak and the way we think. These things are very, very habitual. And the more we exercise a habit, the more we reinforce it.

When we have a conscious, skillful intention (“sit still,” “meet every distraction with kindness”) we’re introducing something new into the mix. We meet our unconscious, usually unhelpful habits with more conscious, more helpful ones. If we keep making that kind of gentle effort then those conscious habits start to weaken the unconscious and unhelpful ones.

Our new intentions can, in time, become quite automatic. They’re just how we act.

In other words, by choosing intentions, we shape our life. We shape who we are.

And if our positive intentions have been chosen wisely, then we’ll become happier. We’ll be more at ease. We’ll become more at peace with ourselves. This is the power of intention.

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